It takes just a couple of minutes to drive through the village, with its modern buildings and wide streets radiating from rounded squares. The well-known architect Paolo Portoghesi designed one of the latter, it is a multilevel space with colonnades and caryatids. It’s empty. We don’t meet anyone, there are cars parked here and there, but no trace of the occupants. New Poggioreale is a ghost town, even more than old Poggioreale.
The ruins of the latter are located on a hillside a few kilometers of curves away, and, unlike the new town, there are human beings here. In fact, every day someone visits this place, intrigued by the crumbling charm of the ruins of this modern Pompeii.
Palazzo Agosta, standing at the beginning of the main road, is the only building that has been secured. It has become an “Improvised Museum” thanks to the Poggioreale Antica association and its passionate president, Giacinto Musso, who was born here but had to flee in his mother’s arms, at the age of three months. The museum contains the objects that the members received as a gift or recovered from the rubble, simple signs of a life that, on the night of January 14, 1968, stopped forever.
The Belìce earthquake was a catastrophic event that destroyed entire villages such as Gibellina and Montevago, and damaged others irreversibly. The situation was further aggravated by the isolation of the territory, a valley in the interior of Sicily of which most Italians had never even heard of.
So much so that journalists, when they arrived on the spot, called it Valle del Bèlice in their reports, shifting the accent and giving rise to an error that still continues today. The destruction and death resulting from the devastating earthquake, in the heart of a particularly harsh winter, pushed many of the inhabitants to leave, their decision supported by a government which, not knowing which turn to take, gave free train tickets to those who decided to abandon the area.
Until the beginning of 1968, Poggioreale had been an orderly and industrious town, with three hundred years of history. It was founded on the initiative of the Marquis of Gibellina in 1643, with stone houses lined up along carefully cobbled alleys, a well-kept main street, nine churches, and even some more elegant buildings, with large and bright rooms with majolica floors and frescoed ceilings.
There was a theater, with small boxes encircling the scene, and a very large square, where people met on Sundays or after work, and the elderly sat together, watching passers-by (Giuseppe Tornatore chose this square for some scenes of his movie The Star Maker). From here, a flight of steps led to the mother church, which dominated the skyline with its charming bell tower.
Poggioreale had a little hospital, a library built in the Fascist era, standing out among the old buildings with its modern, square lines, and a school, where the desks stood lined up on ungainly floors covered with marble chips, very common in the middle of the last century. Services were necessary, in a village of industrious farmers, shepherds, and petty bourgeoisie counting about 4000 souls.
The town was abandoned during the years following the earthquake. Actually, Giacinto Musso explained to me, only 20% of the houses were irreparably damaged, for a long time the owners continued to frequent the “old town”, even though they now lived in the new town designed by the architects. Unfortunately, the urban planning that created houses and squares did not give them a soul. Many preferred to emigrate, mostly they moved to Australia. Poggioreale today counts around 1500 inhabitants.
Over time, the old stones have been crumbling, and in 2009 the bell tower of the mother church collapsed. The ruins of the increasingly unsafe houses are frequented by instructors and students of the Civil Protection who find the ideal scenario to practice rescue operations.
In my opinion, the latter could be done elsewhere, and the old Poggioreale could be a place of memory but also an attraction for visitors, thus giving new development prospects to this area.
I wish to thank the association Poggioreale Antica for the old photos and those of the museum, and for the info.